When Greg Peterson first played pool at a friend’s house, he liked the game — but he really liked the table.
“I went home and said I wanted to buy a pool table,” he recalled. His dad suggested they make one instead. So Peterson, already an ace in his school wood-shop class, came up with a design, based on his friend’s table, and started gathering materials. “I couldn’t afford slate, so I used particleboard.”
He was just 15 when he finished that first table. Homemade tables were an interesting project, but he soon found himself fascinated with antique pool tables, especially the elaborate ones from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with their exotic woods, intricate details and fine craftsmanship.
Peterson was eager to put his newly acquired skills to work restoring vintage tables, a quest that would change the course of his life.
His supportive father became his accomplice, helping him sleuth out and acquire the gigantic collectibles that can weigh up to 1,600 pounds. Soon father and son were scouring classified ads and driving around the state, finding tables in Summit Avenue mansions, men’s clubs, taverns, pool rooms and even a farm in Wisconsin — where the farmer led them to his chicken coop.
Peterson refurbished the old tables in his parents’ Minneapolis garage, then sold them, using the money to pay his tuition at the University of Minnesota, where he had decided to study architecture.
By his senior year, however, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be an architect. About the same time, the owner of a small billiards store, Ken Peters, whom Peterson had befriended over the years, decided he was ready to sell his business.
“I said I’d gladly buy it,” said Peterson, who was all of 22 at the time. “I gave him a few dollars and assumed his two leases and his store” on Nicollet Avenue S., near Lake Street.
Decades later, Peterson still owns and operates Peters Billiards, now a game and home furnishings store in south Minneapolis. And his collection of vintage tables has ballooned to nearly 90, including the four he keeps at his home in Edina. (Many of the rest are stored at the Peters Billiards warehouse in Edina.)
Even his house was shaped by his passion for pool tables.
“When we designed the house, we started with the lower level,” he said, including space for three tables. The fourth, a prized Brunswick model with intricate wood inlay mosaics, has a place of honor on the main floor. “Instead of a formal dining room, we have a pool table.”
Many of the tables in his collection came from the great once-prolific pool rooms of the early 20th century, including the St. Paul Recreation Co., located in the Hamm Building in downtown St. Paul (now the home of Park Square Theatre), and the Minneapolis Recreation Co., formerly on Hennepin Avenue.
Peterson’s pool tables hold the often colorful history of the places they came from. The Recreation Co., for example, opened in the 1920s during Prohibition and was used as a front for mobsters and gangsters including John Dillinger, “Baby Face” Nelson and “Machine Gun” Kelly, who ran a gambling operation from the basement.
When Peterson visited there in the early ’70s, looking for tables, he found more than 50, along with cigar stands, spittoons, benches and chairs — a speakeasy-era still life, frozen in time. “I was blown away,” he said.
Many of the old tables he’s acquired were initially so covered with grime, dust and years of accumulated smoke that it was difficult to discern what they were even made of.
“Sometimes I’ve bought tables and can’t tell what’s underneath,” he said. “Especially in my earlier days.” He’d clean them up, only to find “just an ugly black pool table.”
But he’s also made some amazing finds, such as the vintage table he found in one historic Minneapolis building — then restored and ultimately returned to its original location. It was an 1893 Brunswick Monarch, a table made of many species of exotic wood with a distinctive cast-iron base shaped like lions, that was languishing on the third floor of the Van Dusen Mansion in the late 1960s.
Decades later, the new owners of the mansion, which by then had been repurposed as an event center, were looking for a vintage pool table. “I said, ‘I have the exact table.’ We ended up moving it back to the Van Dusen. It’s just an awesome, iconic piece of billiard history.”
Green, for grass
The history of billiards is a long one. The game originated in the 13th century as an outdoor pastime, then moved indoors onto specially made tables. “They played on the lawn first. That’s why pool tables [the felt tops] are always green,” Peterson noted.
Once known as “the noble game,” billiards was first associated with royalty. King Louis XI of France purchased a billiards table in 1470, and Mary, Queen of Scots, complained about being deprived of one during her captivity a century later.
Over the years, the game splintered into several variations. There’s pool, played on a table with pockets; billiards played on a table without pockets; and snooker, played on a smaller table with smaller pockets.
“It’s an English game,” Peterson said. “In Minnesota there are a lot of snooker tables because of the Canadian influence.”
Peterson’s passion for pool tables also has resulted in a few brushes with fame. Years ago, he was summoned to bring a snooker table to the Metrodome because the Rolling Stones, who were performing there, wanted to play backstage. And Peterson once sold a rare restored 1870s table to actor Matt Damon. “It was the most heavily inlaid table Brunswick ever did,” he said.
Antique trophy tables like that are a rarefied commodity. While a new pool table typically costs $2,500 to $6,000, a fully restored antique table can run $18,000 to $75,000.
“There’s no Blue Book for tables,” Peterson said, and restoring an old one is a painstaking process.
First they have to be cleaned to remove layers of grease, grime and smoke. Missing or broken wood inlay or ivory sites are replaced with hand-cut pieces, using the same original materials. Often the table structures themselves have to be stabilized and/or rebuilt. “They also have to play right,” Peterson said.
It can take 100 to 200 hours to restore a single table. “You’ve got to be careful what you put that kind of time into,” he said.
But he hasn’t lost the satisfaction of taking a beat-up jewel and restoring its luster.
“What’s fun is to bring a table back to its original value,” he said.
These days, he’s not looking to expand his collection. “It’d have to be a special table,” he said. “But I’d always buy a Monarch.”